British Executions

John Bishop

Age: unknown

Sex: male

Crime: murder

Date Of Execution: 5 Dec 1831

Crime Location:

Execution Place: unknown

Method: hanging

Executioner: unknown



Notorious Body-Snatchers, who murdered People and sold their Bodies to Hospitals, and were executed at Newgate, 5th of December, 1831

   IT was on Saturday, the 5th of November, 1831, that these two men were apprehended for the crime of which they were subsequently found guilty, and for which they were executed. They were immediately conveyed to the station-house of the F division of police, in Covent Garden, and on the same night were taken into custody before Mr Minshull, the sitting magistrate at Bow Street police office. Bishop and Williams, however, were not the only persons then charged: James May and James Shields were also taken into custody, an allegation of suspicion of murder having been made against them all generally. At this period little more than a mere declaration that they were suspected to have been concerned in the murder of a boy about fourteen years of age, whose body they had offered for sale at King's College, was made, and the prisoners were remanded to await the result of the inquest, which was directed to be held upon the body of the deceased.

   On Tuesday, the 8th of November, a coroner's jury sat upon the remains of the unfortunate boy, the prisoners being in attendance to hear the evidence adduced.

   The first witness called was William Hill, the porter at the dissecting-room of King's College. He stated that at about a quarter before twelve on the previous Saturday, the 5th of November, the bell of the dissecting-room having been rung, he went to the door, and found the prisoners Bishop and May there. He had known them both before, from their having supplied the College with subjects for dissection. May asked him whether he "wanted anything," which, in the language of such persons, was intended to convey an inquiry as to whether he wanted to buy a subject. He answered that he did not want anything particularly, but inquired what they had. The reply was: "A male subject." He asked of what size he was; and the prisoner said he was a boy, about fourteen years old, and he wanted twelve guineas. He told them he was sure that that price would not be given, for the school did not want a subject; but he added that if they would wait he would acquaint Mr Partridge, the anatomical demonstrator, with their business. He accordingly informed Mr Partridge that the prisoners were there, and that gentleman said he would see them; he, in consequence, directed them to proceed to a particular part of the building, which was appropriated to the use of such persons. He met them there, and they were soon joined by Mr Partridge, who refused to give them the price they demanded. May then said that he should have the body for ten guineas; but this was still declared to be too much, and Mr Partridge went away. The prisoners again pressed the witness to purchase the subject; and he, at their request, went after Mr Partridge to ascertain the greatest amount he would pay. Nine guineas was the sum fixed, and he returned and acquainted the prisoners with the determination which had been expressed to give no more than that amount. May said that he would be d--d if it should come in at less than ten guineas; but, as he was going out at the door, Bishop took witness aside and said: " Never mind May, he is drunk; it shall come in at nine guineas in the course of half-an-hour."

   They then went away; but at about a quarter past two in the afternoon they returned with Williams and Shields, the latter carrying a hamper. May and Bishop carried the hamper into an inner room. When it was opened a sack was found inside, which contained the body. May, who was even more tipsy than he had been before, now took out the sack, turned it up and threw the body carelessly on the ground. He remarked that it was "a good one"; to which witness assented; but he observed that the body was particularly fresh, and, in consequence of some other appearances which presented themselves, he went to Mr Partridge. Before he went he asked the prisoners what the boy had died of; May answered that that was no business of theirs, or his either. He directed them to wait in the adjoining room until his return. He acquainted Mr Partridge with his suspicions, and that gentleman, in consequence, accompanied him to the room to look at the body. He thought that the body was more rigid than was usual, and it appeared to him as if it had not been buried. The left hand was turned towards the head, and the fingers were firmly clenched; there was also a cut on the forehead, from which blood appeared to have issued upon the chest. Mr Partridge concurred with him in thinking that there were some suspicious appearances about the body, and went away. Other gentlemen, students at the college, came, soon after, and were of the same opinion. Witness inquired of the prisoners how the cut came in the forehead of the deceased; and Bishop answered that May had done it, when he had thrown the body on the ground. When Mr Partridge returned he showed the prisoners a fifty-pound note, which he said he would have to get changed before he could pay them. Bishop suggested that he should give them what money he had, and they would call again on the following Monday for the remainder of the price; but this was objected to, and Mr Partridge again went away. In about a quarter of an hour Mr Mayo, the professor of anatomy at the college, came into the room with Mr Rogers, the inspector of police, and some constables, and the prisoners were immediately given into custody. The body was then delivered to the police, together with the hamper and sack; and they, with the prisoners, were taken to the station-house.

   Mr Richard Partridge was called, and he stated that he was demonstrator of anatomy at King's College. It was his opinion that the marks of internal violence which he had found were sufficient to produce death. He believed that the appearances of internal violence to the spinal marrow had been caused by a blow, or some other species of violence inflicted on the back of the neck.

   Mr George Beaman, the surgeon to the parish of St Paul, Covent Garden, had also examined the body, and his opinion corresponded with that expressed by Mr Partridge. His belief was that the deceased had died within thirty-six hours of the time when he first saw it on the Saturday; and he was also of opinion that the deceased had not died a natural death.

   Other evidence having been given, the jury returned a verdict of "Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown"; but expressed their strong belief that the prisoners, Bishop, Williams and May, had been concerned in the transaction.

   It was impossible that an inquiry which had hitherto terminated so unsatisfactorily should cease here, and Mr Minshull, with that determination by which his conduct as a magistrate was always characterised, immediately took upon himself the arduous task of conducting the investigation to its close. The prisoners were then remanded, and on Friday, the 18th of the month, they were again brought up.

   Witnesses were then examined whose testimony traced the prisoners Bishop, Williams and May to a noted house-of-call for body-snatchers -- the Fortune of War public-house, in Smithfield -- on the 4th of November, where they appeared to be in earnest conversation. They went in and out repeatedly all that day; and at night May was seen with a number of human teeth in a handkerchief, to which some portion of the flesh of the gum still adhered, upon which he poured water, in order to clean them. The next morning Shields joined them, and Bishop was heard endeavouring to induce him to go to St Bartholomew's Hospital for a hamper, which he refused to do, in consequence of which Bishop went and fetched it himself. They then went away, and were not again seen.

   Upon the delivery of this evidence the examination concluded, and the prisoners were again remanded.

   On the following day the police proceeded to Nova Scotia Gardens, and a new and more searching investigation of the prisoners' house and premises took place. There, after a minute investigation, they made discoveries which filled them with horror, and confirmed, by the most positive evidence, the suspicions which had been excited of the murderous traffic which had been carried on. About five yards from Bishop's back door they found a blue jacket, black trousers and little shirt. About a yard farther on they found a blue short coat, a pair of grey trousers with braces on and a piece of a comb in the pocket, a striped waistcoat, the back of the collar of which was blood-stained, and a shirt torn down the centre.

   Afterwards articles of a woman's clothing were found buried in the garden, which were eventually proved to have belonged to a woman named Frances Pigburn, another victim to the designs of these atrocious conspirators.

   Mr Minshull said no doubt could exist that the clothes were the same which had been worn by Frances Pigburn, and he feared there was little doubt that the poor woman had been murdered. It was inferred that the body had been sold for the purposes of dissection, and the clothes buried to avoid detection. In all probability the poor creature had been searching for lodgings, was met by some of the infernal gang, and was lured into their den and there destroyed. To what extent these horrors had been committed it was impossible to imagine.

   A further warrant for the detention of Bishop, May and Williams upon this fresh charge was then made out, and Mr Thomas, police superintendent, was requested to make every possible inquiry among the hospitals and dissecting-rooms in the metropolis, to ascertain, if possible, whether anybody answering the description of Mrs Pigburn had been offered for sale by any of the prisoners within the last six weeks.

   On Friday, the 2nd of December, 1831, the prisoners Bishop, May and Williams were placed at the bar of the Old Bailey to take their trial upon the charge of murder preferred against them. At ten o'clock Chief Justice Tindal, Mr Justice Littledale and Mr Baron Vaughan took their seats upon the bench, the remaining portion of which was instantly occupied by members of the nobility and persons of distinction, amongst whom was his Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex.

   Evidence having been given, the Chief justice summed up, and the jury returned as their verdict that John Bishop, Thomas Williams and James May were severally guilty of murder.

   The verdict was received in court with becoming silence; but the moment it was conveyed to the immense multitude assembled outside they evinced their satisfaction at the result by loud and long-continued cheering and clapping of hands. To such an extent was this expression of the popular feeling carried that the windows of the court were obliged to be closed, in order that the voice of the recorder might be heard passing sentence of death.

   On Sunday the usual sermon was preached in the jail chapel, and after that the prisoners Bishop and Williams were placed in the same cell, where they were visited by the ordinary and under-sheriffs, to whom they made the following confessions:--

   "NEWGATE, December 4, 1831.
   "I, John Bishop, do hereby declare and confess that the boy supposed to be the Italian boy was a Lincolnshire boy. I and Williams took him to my house about half-past ten o'clock on Thursday night, the 3rd of November, from the Bell, in Smithfield. We lighted a candle, and gave the boy some bread and cheese; and after he had eaten, we gave him a cup full of rum, with about half a small phial of laudanum in it. I had bought the rum the same evening in Smithfield, and the laudanum also in small quantities at different shops. There was no water or other liquid put into the cup with the rum and laudanum. The boy drank the contents of the cup directly, in two draughts, and afterwards a little beer. In about ten minutes he fell asleep in the chair on which he sat, and I removed him from the chair to the floor and laid him on his side. We then went out and left him there. We had a quarter of gin and a pint of beer at the Feathers, near Shoreditch church, and then went home again, having been away from the boy about twenty minutes. We found him asleep as we had left him. We took him directly, asleep and insensible, into the garden, and tied a cord to his feet, to enable us to pull him up by; and I then took him in my arms and let him slide from them headlong into the well in the garden; whilst Williams held the cord to prevent the boy going altogether too low in the well. He was nearly wholly in the water, his feet being just above the surface. Williams fastened the other end of the cord round the paling, to prevent the body getting beyond our reach. The boy struggled a little with his arms and legs in the water, and the water bubbled a minute. We waited till these symptoms were passed, and then went indoors, and afterwards I think we went out and walked down Shoreditch to occupy the time; and in three-quarters of an hour we returned, and took him out of the well, by pulling him by the cord attached to his feet. We undressed him in the paved yard, rolled his clothes up, and buried them where they were found by the witness who produced them. We carried the boy into the washhouse, laid him on the floor, and covered him over with a bag."

    The statement then detailed their subsequent movements and the attempts they made to sell the body for dissecting purposes. May, however, knew nothing of the murder.

   In another confession Bishop wrote:

   "I also confess that I and Williams were concerned in the murder of a female, whom I believe to have been since discovered to be Frances Pigburn, on or about the 9th of October last. I and Williams saw her sitting about eleven or twelve o'clock at night on the step of a door in Shoreditch, near the church. She had a child, four or five years old, with her on her lap. I asked why she was sitting there. She said she had no home to go to, for her landlord had turned her out into the street. I told her she might go home with us and sit by the fire all night. She said she would go with us, and walked with us to my house, in Nova Scotia Gardens, carrying her child with her. When we got there we found the family in bed, and we took the woman in, and lighted a fire, by which we all sat down together. I went out for beer, and we all partook of beer and rum (I had brought the rum from Smithfield in my pocket). The woman and her child lay down on some dirty linen on the floor, and I and Williams went to bed. About six o'clock next morning I and Williams told her to go away, and to meet us at the London Apprentice, in Old Street Road, at one o'clock; this was before our families were up. She met us again at one o'clock at the London Apprentice without her child; we gave her some halfpence and beer, and desired her to meet us again at ten o'clock at night at the same place. After this we bought rum and laudanum at different places, and at ten o'clock we met the woman again at the London Apprentice; she had no child with her. We drank three pints of beer between us, and stayed there about an hour. We then walked to Nova Scotia Gardens, and Williams and I led her into No. 2, an empty house, adjoining my house. We had no light. Williams stepped out into the garden with the rum and laudanum, which I had handed to him; he there mixed them together in a half-pint bottle, and came into the house to me and the woman, and we gave her the bottle to drink. She drank the whole in two or three draughts. There was a quarter of rum and about half a phial of laudanum. She sat down on the step between the two rooms in the house, and went off to sleep in about ten minutes. She was falling back, when I caught her to save her fall, and laid her back on the floor. Then Williams and I went to a public-house, got something to drink, and in about half-an-hour came back to the woman. We took off her cloak, tied a cord to her feet, carried her to the well in the garden, and thrust her into it headlong. She struggled very little afterwards, and the water bubbled a little at the top. We fastened the cord to the palings, to prevent her going down beyond our reach, and left her, and took a walk to Shoreditch and back in about half-an-hour. We left the woman in the well this length of time that the rum and laudanum might run out of the body at the mouth. On our return we took her out of the well, cut off her clothes, carried the body into the wash-house of my own house, where we doubled it up and put it into a hair-box, which we corded, and left it there. Later we took it to St Thomas's Hospital, where I saw Mr South's footman, and sent him upstairs to Mr South to ask if he wanted a subject. The servant brought me word that his master wanted one, but could not give an answer until the next day, as he had not time to look at it. I then went to Mr Appleton, at Mr Grainger's, and agreed to sell it to him for eight guineas; and afterwards I fetched it from St Thomas's Hospital and took it to Mr Appleton, who paid me five pounds then, and the rest on the following Monday.

   "I also confess the murder of a boy, who told us his name was Cunningham. It was a fortnight after the murder of the woman. I and Williams found him sleeping, about eleven or twelve o'clock at night, on Friday, the 21st of October, as I think, under some rubbish in the pig-market at Smithfield. Williams woke him and asked him to come along with him (Williams) and the boy walked with Williams and me to my house in Nova Scotia Gardens. We took him into my house and gave him some warm beer sweetened with sugar, with rum and laudanum in it. He drank two or three cups full, and then fell asleep in a little chair belonging to one of my children. We laid him on the floor and then went out for a little while and got something to drink, and then returned, carried the boy to the well, and threw him into it in the same way as we had served the other boy and the woman. He died instantly in the well, and we left him there a little while to give time for the mixture we had given him to run out of his body. We then took the body from the well, tore off the clothes in the garden, and buried them there. The body we carried into the washhouse and put it into the same box, and left it there till the next evening, when we got a porter to carry it with us to St Bartholomew's Hospital, where I sold it to Mr Smith for eight guineas. This boy was about ten or eleven years old; he said his mother lived in Kent Street, and that he had not been home for a twelvemonth and better. I solemnly declare that these are all the murders in which I have been engaged, or that I know anything of; that I and Williams were alone concerned in these, and that no other person whatever knew anything about either of them; and that I do not know whether there are others who practise the same mode of getting bodies for sale. I know nothing of any Italian boy, and was never concerned in or knew of the murder of such a boy. I have followed the course of obtaining a livelihood as a body-snatcher for twelve years, and have obtained and sold, I think, from five hundred to a thousand bodies; but I declare before God that they were all obtained after death, and that, with the above exceptions, I am ignorant of any murder for that or any other purpose."

   It was not until subsequent to the delivery of these statements that May was acquainted with the fact that the execution of his sentence had been respited during his Majesty's pleasure.

   Bishop and Williams were executed outside Newgate in the presence of thirty thousand spectators, who set up a shout of exultation that was prolonged for several minutes. The bodies were removed the same night, Bishop to the King's College, and Williams to the Theatre of Anatomy, in Windmill Street, Haymarket, to be dissected. They were publicly exhibited on Tuesday and Wednesday, at both places, when immense crowds of persons were admitted to see their remains.